Aim for savings equality in family

Careful planning will help tide over calamity

For married couples, the new buzzword should be "savings equality", because this may well be how families can overcome tragedies that hit them. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

If you were kidnapped, would your spouse have access to the family's funds to withdraw enough cash to pay the ransom and save you?

This is not a frivolous question but a test to make you think how well prepared you are to protect your family in a calamity.

If you are a breadwinner who has the habit of keeping all the money to yourself, you may want to rethink this approach and have a better way to manage your funds to save the day.

The kidnap scenario is actually based on a true story that was made into a 2015 Chinese blockbuster movie Saving Mr Wu starring Hong Kong actor Andy Lau.

Lau acted as a rich bachelor who was taken hostage by a bunch of crooks who wanted three million yuan (S$607,000) for his release.

As he lived alone and did not have a family member to help him withdraw his money, he had to call a friend, who fortunately was rich enough to have the cash to bail him out.

Rich and generous friends are hard to come by. For most of us, the people who are likely to go through great lengths to save us are our spouses and children.

We often talk about income equality when it comes to earnings for men and women.

For married couples, the new buzzword should be "savings equality", because this may well be how families can overcome tragedies that hit them.

Savings equality means that a family's total funds and assets should, as far as possible, be evenly distributed between the spouses for a start. This is especially vital for women who stay home as housewives to take care of their families.

If they have children who are mature enough, they should be given some savings as well, just in case something happens to both parents.

Yes, many people, especially men who are breadwinners, will baulk at the idea of giving up the power of having all the money to themselves. But as the kidnap scenario shows, doing so may just save their lives.

That we are living now in trying times of a global pandemic should make us think harder about our vulnerability.

Just like how companies devise business continuity plans to keep crucial operations going when one team is down, families too should have some form of financial continuity plans should something happen to the income earners.

Those who truly love their families should consider this - how will their loved ones even live day to day if they are in a coma or worse, die suddenly?

Just like the taboo subject of drawing up a will, nobody likes to think about bad things happening to them. But death and illnesses are really major considerations in financial planning for families - that's why many people are loaded with insurance policies. But insurance policies will not solve everything.

As a journalist who specialised in crime and court cases in my early years, I have witnessed enough family tragedies to know that many people are simply unprepared for the unexpected.

For instance, I saw a well-off family left in a quandary due to the sudden death of the breadwinner.

His widow and kids could not afford to even pay for his funeral because all his bank accounts and credit cards were frozen by the banks upon his death.

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So, the family had to depend on the donations at his wake to settle the bill. They probably had to borrow money from relatives and friends to help themselves out subsequently, as it could have taken months before the man's estate was resolved.

Then there was an ordinary couple who were estranged - the man was a hardcore gambler who was booted out of the family. His wife was the sole owner of the family home but she later died without leaving a will.

So the intestate law kicked in to divide her assets equally between the estranged husband, since they were still married, and her children.

Had she drawn up a will, or better still, transferred the home to her children before she died, the husband would not have received a single cent.

Many people often assume that wealthy families would be better prepared in legacy matters.

But veteran lawyer Peter Cuthbert Low said the reality is that many cases that end up in court involve wealthy families who have not done enough to prevent disputes.

Mr Low, 69, a former president of the Law Society, noted that he was involved in a long-drawn-out legal dispute that had dragged on for years because family members were battling for assets worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Legal fees alone reached millions of dollars too.

Mr Low said that if the heads of families make proper plans early, the chances of fights erupting would be greatly reduced.

"The instruments of law that can help families keep peace are actually simple, like wills and the lasting power of attorney. If people make use of them properly, much of the trouble could have been avoided."

But what about that age-old worry of men - if they give their wives half of what they own, wouldn't they lose those assets should they break up?

Singapore's highest court has ruled that should couples separate after a long marriage, the law would lean towards the equal division of the family's properties as the starting point.

So men would do better to become generous husbands, and let their wives keep half of their assets.

After all, legally, those assets do not belong to them anyway.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 29, 2020, with the headline Aim for savings equality in family. Subscribe